December 19, 2019

Orthodoxy as Therapy (Fr. George Metallinos)

Orthodoxy as Therapy

By Protopresbyter Fr. George Metallinos

If we wanted to give a conventional definition of Christianity, as Orthodoxy, we would say it is the experience of the presence of the Uncreated (God) within history and the possibility of those who are created (people) becoming God "according to grace".

Given the perpetual presence of God in historical reality in Christ, Christianity offers mankind the possibility of theosis, just as Medical Science offers mankind the possibility of preserving or restoring his health through a specific therapeutic procedure and a specific way of life.

The writer is in a position to appreciate the coincidence between the medical and ecclesiastical pastoral sciences, because, as a diabetic and a Christian, he is aware that in both cases, he has to faithfully abide by the rules that have been set out, in order to attain both these two goals.

The unique and absolute goal of life in Christ is theosis, in other words, our union with God, so that man - through his participation in God’s uncreated energy – may become “by the Grace of God” that which God is by nature (without beginning and without end). This is what “salvation” means, in Christianity. It is not the moral improvement of man, but a re-creation, a re-construction in Christ, of man and of society, through an existing and an existential relationship with Christ, Who is the incarnate manifestation of God in History. This is what the Apostle Paul’s words imply, in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If someone is in Christ, he is a new creation”. Whoever is united with Christ is a new creation.

That is why – according to Christianity – the incarnation of God-Logos - this redemptory “intrusion” of the Eternal and the Beyond-time God into Historical time – represents the commencement of a new world, of a (literally) “New Age”, which continues throughout the passing centuries, in the persons of authentic Christians: the Saints. The Church exists in this world, both as the “body of Christ” as well as “in Christ”, in order to offer salvation, through one’s embodiment in this regenerative procedure. This redemptory task of the Church is fulfilled by means of a specific therapeutic method, whereby throughout history the Church essentially acts as a universal Infirmary. “Spiritual Infirmary” (spiritual hospital) is the characterization given to the Church by the blessed Chrysostom († 407).

Further along, we shall examine the answers given to the following questions:

What is the sickness that Christian Orthodoxy cures?

What is the therapeutic method it implements?

What is the identity of authentic Christianity, which radically separates it from all of its heretic deviations, and from every other form of religion?

1. The sickness of human nature is the fallen state of mankind, along with all of creation, which likewise suffers (“sighs and groans together” – Romans 8:22) together with mankind. This diagnosis applies to every single person (regardless whether they are Christian or not, or whether they believe or not), on account of the overall unity of mankind (i.e. Acts 17:26). Christian Orthodoxy does not confine itself within the narrow boundaries of one religion - which cares only for its own followers – but, just like God, “wants all people to be saved and to arrive at the realization of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4), since God is “the Saviour of all persons” (Timothy I, 4:10). Thus, the sickness that Christianity refers to pertains to all of mankind. Romans 5:12 says: “Death has come upon all people, since all of them have sinned" (that is, they have veered from their path towards theosis). Just as the fall (i.e. sickness) is a panhuman issue, so is salvation-therapy directly dependent on the inner functions of each person.

The natural (authentic) state of a person is (patristically) defined by the functioning inside him of three mnemonic systems; two of which are familiar and monitored by medical science, while the third is something handled by pastoral therapeutics. The first system is cellular memory (DNA), which determines everything inside a human organism. The second is the cerebral cellular memory, brain function, which regulates our association with our self and our environment. Both these systems are familiar to medical science, whose work it is to maintain their harmonious operation.

The experience of the Saints is familiar with one other mnemonic system: that of the heart, or ‘noetic’ memory, which functions inside the heart. In Orthodox tradition, the heart does not only have a natural operation, as a mere pump that circulates the blood. Furthermore, according to patristic teaching, neither the brain nor the central nervous system is the center of our self-awareness; again, it is the heart, because, beyond its natural function, it also has a supernatural function. Under certain circumstances, it becomes the place of our communion with God, or, His uncreated energy. This is of course perceived through the experience of the Saints, and not through any logical function or through an intellectual theologizing.

Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite († 1809), in recapitulating the overall patristic tradition, calls the heart a natural and supernatural center, but also a paranormal center, whenever its supernatural faculty becomes idle on account of the heart being dominated by passions. The heart’s supernatural faculty is the ultimate prerequisite for perfection, for man’s fulfillment, in other words, his theosis, for a complete embodiment in the communion in Christ.

In its supernatural faculty, the heart becomes the space where the nous can be activated. In Orthodox terminology, the nous (appearing in the New Testament as ‘the spirit of man’ and ‘the eye of the soul’) is an energy of the soul, by means of which man can know God, and can reach the state of ‘seeing’ God. We must of course clarify that ‘knowledge’ of God does not imply knowledge of His incomprehensible and inapproachable divine essence. This distinction between ‘essence’ and ‘energy’ in God is the crucial difference between Orthodoxy and all other versions of Christianity. The energy of the nous inside the heart is called the ‘noetic faculty’ of the heart. We again stress that according to Orthodoxy, Nous and Logic are not the same thing, because logic functions within the brain, whereas the nous functions within the heart.

The noetic faculty is manifested as the “incessant prayer” (i.e. 1 Thessalonians 5:17) of the Holy Spirit inside the heart (i.e. Galatians 4:6, Romans 8:26, 1Thessalonians 5:19) and is named by our Holy Fathers as “the memory of God”. When man has in his heart the “memory of God”, in other words, when he hears in his heart “the voice” (1 Corinthians 14:2, Galatians 4:6, etc.), he can sense God “dwelling” inside him (Romans 8:11). Saint Basil the Great in his 2nd Epistle says that the memory of God remains incessant when it is not interrupted by mundane cares, and the nous “departs” towards God; in other words, when it is in communion with God. But this does not mean that the faithful who has been activated by this divine energy withdraws from the needs of everyday life, by remaining motionless or in some kind of ecstasy; it means that his nous is liberated from these cares, which are items that preoccupy only his Logic. To use an example that we can relate to: A scientist, who has re-acquired his noetic faculty, will use his logic to tackle his problems, while his nous inside his heart will preserve the memory of God incessantly. The person who preserves all three mnemonic systems is the Saint. To Orthodoxy, a Saint is a healthy (normal) person. This is why Orthodoxy’s therapy is linked to man’s course towards holiness.

The non-function or the below-par function of man’s noetic faculty is the essence of his fall. The much-debated “ancestral sin” was precisely man’s mishandling – from that very early moment of his historical presence - of the preservation of God’s memory (his communion with God) inside his heart. This is the morbid state that all of the ancestral descendants participate in; because it was no moral or personal sin, but a sickness of man’s nature (“Our nature has become ill of this sin”, observes Saint Cyril of Alexandria - † 444), which is transmitted from person to person, exactly like the sickness that a tree transmits to all the other trees that originate from it.

The inactivation of the noetic faculty or the memory of God, and confusing it with the function of the brain (which happens to all of us), subjugates man to stress and to the environment, and to the quest for bliss through individualism and an anti-social stance. While ill because of his fallen state, man uses God and his fellow people to secure his personal security and happiness. Personal use of God is found in “religion” (that is, the attempt to elicit strength from the divine), which can degenerate into a self-deification of man (“I became a self-idol” says Saint Andrew of Crete, in his ‘Great Canon’). The use of fellow-people - and subsequently creation in general - is achieved by exploiting them in every possible way. This, therefore, is the sickness that man seeks to cure, by becoming fully incorporated in the “spiritual hospital” of the Church.

2. The purpose of the Church’s presence in the world – as a communion in Christ - is man’s cure; the restoration of his heart-centered communion with God; in other words, of his noetic faculty. According to the professor Fr. John Romanides, “The patristic tradition is neither a social philosophy, nor a system of morals, or a religious dogmatism; it is a therapeutic method. In this context, it is very similar to Medicine and especially Psychiatry. The noetic energy of the soul that prays noetically and incessantly inside the heart is a natural ‘instrument’, which everyone possesses and is in need of therapy. Neither philosophy, nor any of the known positive or social sciences can cure this ‘instrument’. This is why the incurable cases are not even aware of this instrument’s existence.”

The need for man to be cured is a panhuman issue, related firstly to the restoration of every person to his natural state of existence, through the reactivation of the third mnemonic faculty. However, it also extends to man’s social presence. In order for someone to be in communion with others as brethren, their self-interest (which in the long run acts as self-love) must be transformed into selflessness (i.e. 1 Corinthians 13:8 - “love…does not ask for reciprocation.”). Selfless love exists: it is the love of the Triadic God (Romans 5:8, 1 John 4:7), which gives everything without seeking anything in exchange. That is why Christian Orthodoxy’s social ideal is not “common possessions”, but the “lack of possessions”, as a willed resignation from any sort of demand. Only then can justice be possible.

The therapeutic method that is offered by the Church is the spiritual life - life in the Holy Spirit. Spiritual life is experienced as an exercise (ascesis) and a participation in Uncreated Grace, through the Sacraments. Ascesis is the violation of our self-ruled and inanimate sin nature, which is coursing headlong into a spiritual or eternal death, i.e. the eternal separation from the Grace of God. Ascesis aspires to victory over our passions, with the intention of conquering the inner subservience to those pestiferous focal points of man and participating in Christ’s Cross and His Resurrection.

The Christian, who is practicing such restraint under the guidance of his Therapist-Spiritual Father, becomes receptive to Grace, which he receives through his participation in the sacramental life of the ecclesiastic body. There cannot be any non-ascetic Christians, just as there cannot be a cured person who does not follow the therapeutic advice that the doctor prescribed for him.

3. The above lead us to certain constants, which verify the identity of Christian Orthodoxy:

(a) The Church – as the body of Christ - functions as a therapeutic center/hospital. Otherwise, it would not be a Church, but a “Religion”. The Clergy are initially selected by the cured, in order to function as therapists. The therapeutic function of the Church is preserved today, mostly in Monasteries which, having survived secularism, continue the Church of the Apostolic times.

(b) The scientists of ecclesiastical therapy are the already cured persons. Those who have not had the experience of therapy cannot be therapists. That is the essential difference between pastoral therapeutic science and medical science. The scientists of ecclesiastical therapy (Fathers and Mothers) bring forth other Therapists, just as the Professors of Medicine bring forth their successors.

(c) The Church by confining itself to a simple forgiveness of sins so that a place in paradise may be secured constitutes alienation, and is tantamount to medical science forgiving the patient so that they might be healed after death! The Church cannot send someone to Paradise or to Hell. Besides, Paradise and Hell are not places, they are ways of existence. By healing mankind, the Church prepares the person so that they might eternally look upon Christ in His uncreated light as a view of Paradise, and not as a view of Hell, or as “an all-consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). And this of course concerns every single person, because ALL people shall look eternally upon Christ, as “the Judge” of the whole world.

(d) The validity of science is verified by the achievement of its goals (i.e., in Medicine it is the curing of the patient). It is the way that authentic scientific medicine is distinguished from charlatanism. The criterion of pastoral therapy by the Church is also the achievement of spiritual healing, by opening the way towards theosis. Therapy is not transferred to the afterlife; it takes place during man’s lifetime, here, in this world (hinc et nunc). This can be seen in the incorrupt relics of the Saints that have overcome biological deterioration, such as the relics of the Saints of the Ionian Island: Spyridon, Gerasimos, Dionysios and Theodora Augusta. Incorrupt relics are, in our tradition, the indisputable evidence of theosis, or in other words the fulfillment of the Church’s ascetic therapy.

I would like to ask the Medical scientists of our country to pay special attention to the issue of the ncorruption of holy relics, given that they haven’t been scientifically interfered with, but, in them is manifest the energy of Divine Grace; because it has been observed that, at the moment when the cellular system should begin to disintegrate, it automatically ceases to, and instead of emanating any odor of decay, the body emanates a distinctive fragrance. I limit this comment to the medical symptoms, and will not venture into the aspect of miraculous phenomena as evidence of theosis, because that aspect belongs to another sphere of discussion.

(e) Lastly, the divine texts of the Church (Holy Bible, Synodic and Patristic texts) do not constitute coding systems of any Christian ideology; they bear a therapeutic character and function in the same way that university dissertations function in medical science. The same applies to the liturgical texts, as for example the Benedictions. The simple reading of a Benediction (prayers), without the combined effort of the faithful in the therapeutic procedure of the Church, would be no different to the instance where a patient resorts to the doctor for his excruciating pains, and, instead of an immediate intervention by the doctor, he is limited to being placed on an operating table, and being read the chapter that pertains to his specific ailment.

This, in a nutshell, is Orthodoxy. It doesn’t matter whether one accepts it or not. However, with regard to scientists, I have tried - as a colleague in science myself - to scientifically respond to the question: “What is Orthodoxy?”

Any other version of Christianity constitutes a counterfeiting and a perversion of it, even if it aspires to presenting itself as something Orthodox.

Bibliographical Notes

Fr. John S. Romanides, Roman or Neo-Roman Fathers of the Church, Thessaloniki 1984.

Fr. John S. Romanides, “Religion is a Neurobiological Sickness, and Orthodoxy is its Cure”, Holy Monastery of Koutloumousion Publications, 1996, pages 66-67.

Fr. John S. Romanides, “Church Synods and Civilization”, from THEOLOGY, vol.63 (1992) pg.421-450 and in Greek vol.66 (1995) pg.646-680.

Fr. Hierotheos Vlachos (presently Metropolitan of Nafpaktos), Orthodox Psychotherapy, Edessa 1986.

Fr. Hierotheos Vlachos (presently Metropolitan of Nafpaktos), Brief Introduction into Orthodox Spirituality, Athens.

Fr. Hierotheos Vlachos (presently Metropolitan of Nafpaktos), Existential Psychology and Orthodox Psychotherapy, Levadia 1995.